Volunteers working on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign were so determined to reach small-town Nevada voters that they traveled on horseback to their rural destination.
Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the Western Folklife Center in Elko, touching on many of the issues he stressed in stops to bigger metro areas — climate change, international alliances and how President Donald Trump is fracturing America. But, in an attempt to further appeal to rural voters, he also spoke on access to broadband internet, a peak issue for rural voters.
Other candidates have taken to their websites to ask for volunteers to go door-to-door in areas like Elko, Ely and Winnemucca with hopes of securing votes in Saturday’s Democratic presidential caucuses. Many have opened field offices in these towns.
While the rural counties overwhelmingly vote Republican, there are Democrats there, and they matter for the caucus process just like urban Democrats. Campaigns see the handful of voters in places like Fernley in Northern Nevada or Pahrump in Southern Nevada, and see a chance to steal a delegate or two in a contested race.
“If I’m a candidate and I think I’m just not going to do well enough among the key unions in the Las Vegas area or if I think I’m just not going to do well enough with Latino voters, maybe I can look to the rural areas of the state to salvage my showing in Nevada,” said Kenneth Miller, an assistant professor of political science at UNLV.
The number of delegates from each county sent to the county convention is determined by a Nevada statute in which counties are allocated a certain number of delegates based on registered voters in a party.
For example, a county with fewer than 400 registered Democrats would get one delegate per five voters, while a county with over 4,000 registered Democrats would get one delegate per 50 voters.
In January, there were 2,581 registered active Democratic voters in Churchill County, which equates to 86 delegates. At the lowest end of the list, Eureka County sits with 88 registered Democratic voters, which results in at least 17 delegates.
Clark County and Washoe County, which have 94% of the state’s population, will receive a little over eight times the delegates of all the other counties combined, with at least 11,312 delegates selected in the two urban areas. Rural counties will send at least 1,369 delegates.
That means candidates won’t be able to run away with the nomination carrying only rural counties — support in these areas can help fortify the results in the Las Vegas and Reno areas.
Nevada’s rural areas, of course, have long been a Republican stronghold. Every Nevada county besides Washoe and Clark voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. It was the same in the 2012 and 2008 presidential elections, when the rural counties went to the Republican candidate.
This trend, along with much higher voter registration numbers for Republicans in rural counties, means that the buildup to the Democratic caucuses could be the last chance for rural voters to make an impact in determining the president.
“It’s mostly new and somewhat unique to this cycle,” Kimi Cole, chair of the Rural Nevada Democratic Caucus, said of the attention to small Nevada towns.
Paul Selberg, the state director for former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, said the campaign is targeting rural areas to gather the most engagement from voters in the process as possible. Buttigieg's ability to relate with a variety of voters was on display three weeks ago when he took second in the Iowa caucuses.
“Not only is Pete able to win a broad coalition, he’s also helping expand the electorate,” Selberg said.
Some of the issues important to rural Democrats — mining and lumber issues — are less relevant to urban areas. Other issues, like the ever-present water issue in the West, are statewide concerns.
One thing important to all: health care.
The issue has taken center stage with debate over mandatory government-run health care versus a government-controlled option. In more rural areas, the topic of health care comes with a different necessity, Cole said.
“Most people in urban areas have … hospitals in their towns, they have doctors in their towns, they generally have options of where they go for health care,” Cole said. “Get out into the rural areas, you may have a clinic, you may have nothing at all, you may be a care flight or a four-hour drive from health care.”
The split between supporters of more moderate candidates like Buttigieg and more progressive candidates like Sanders also exists in these rural areas, Cole said.
“There’s people who say, ‘Hey, I feel better with the status quo, I’d like to go back to some semblance of sanity here. I’ll stick with the moderate candidate,’” Cole said. “And then there’s the ones who say, We’re so frustrated with the entire system, we need dramatic, drastic change,’” he said.